The Sacred Truce
Η Ιερή Εκεχειρία
The shield wall began to break almost right away, and the bragging between the two forces quickly turned to screaming as the blood flowed from the first wounds. On the edge of Ares’ Dancing Floor, near Eleutherai, yet another battle had broken out.
It was the month of Thargelion, and men had already partly sated their winter’s bloodlust. However, in recent years, when the memories of past alliances and betrayals still festered, when city-states still jingled purses before fighting men to gain the upper hand over their neighbours, peace was a rare thing, and bloody skirmishes the norm.
“Push forward!” yelled Stefanos, son of Talos, pentekonter on the right wing of the shield wall of Arkadian and Achaean troops. “Now!” he ordered, as he drove the three-meter shaft of his ash doru into the face of one of the men in front of him, pulling it back out of the gore for another strike. One of his opponent’s spears slammed into the face of his hoplon shield, but it took the impact, the bronze and oak his constant protection over the years.
“Come on, peacock!” his opponent yelled, his voice a panting echo inside his bronze helmet as he thrust once more at the image of a lone peacock feather upon the hoplon. “We’re in the land of Ares now, not of Hera!”
Stefanos ignored the personal insult to his goddess, and focussed on breaking the enemy wall.
“Forward! One!” he ordered, and the right wing pushed, their shields locked perfectly, their steps in concert. “Two!” They pushed again, the voices of the men before them cracking as they stumbled backward over the rocky terrain. “Three!”
The wall of spears and shields thrust forward one more time and the enemy’s left buckled like a ship’s hull, groaning as it breaks over the rocks.
“We’ve got them!” yelled Kratos, the man on Stefanos’ left.
“Let’s finish this!” added the Spartan, Pollox, on Stefanos’ right. “I’m hungry!” he laughed as his red cloak rippled behind him.
With one more thrust, Stefanos drove the leaf-shaped blade of his spear up into the helmet of the man who had insulted him, and then gave the order, “Wheel to the left!”
The pentekostys turned in to hit the centre of their opponents’ line, and then the real butchery started as infantry were caught between the shield walls of the centre and right as if between Scylla and Caribdis.
Stefanos, son of Talos began to laugh as the blood poured over his spear’s shaft, and he stepped over the dropped hoplons of the fleeing men before him. The solid wall of the seventy two men under him gave him joy, even though some of them had fallen; he had only just met most of them, but the men he had known before still stood, the promachoi whom he commanded on that day.
“Running cowards!” Pollux yelled as he watched more of their opponents turn and run.
“They don’t deserve to stand in a shield wall!” yelled Stefanos. “Finish them!” he yelled as his doru struck in and out of the bodies of men like an enraged viper with infinite venom.
Then, the sound of drums rang out over the field, the signal for an immediate halt.
“Why are we stopping?” Stefanos stood, his eyes on the remaining enemies several feet away as he turned to peer along the broken lines of bleeding, sweating, and heaving warriors.
“It’s the Eleans!” someone called out from the next pentokostys, lowering his hoplon and spear, and pushing back his helmet.
Stefanos stepped out of the line and stared at the approaching line of white-clad priests and heralds who walked without fear between the two armies, their himations staining with blood and offal as they walked among the dead and dying.
“The Sacred Truce is declared!” said the lead herald, his voice high and clear above the carnage. “All hostilities are against the Gods’ will, and must cease. Those competing in the Games must make their way to Olympia by the month of Skirophorion if they wish to win eternal glory. The Sacred Truce is declared!”
Stefanos stood his ground, barring the herald’s way, his chest rising and falling calmly, his brown and green linothorax splattered with blood. He pushed his bronze corinthian helmet back on his head and stared at the herald and priests.
“You have a lot of nerve stepping in like this. We were almost finished,” Stefanos hissed.
“No,” the Elean herald said calmly. “You are finished. Now.”
Stefanos leaned into the man with his blood-spattered hoplon, pushing him into the priest behind him.
“Stefanos! Let them pass! The battle is over!” yelled the lochagos from the centre of the line. “That’s an order, soldier!”
Both sides stared in silence as Stefanos stood his ground, but after a few moments, the rage was leeching out of his veins.
“Come, Stefanos,” came the voices of Kratos and Pollux beside him now, their hands on his shoulders pulling him gently out of the way. “It’s over. Another victory.”
Stefanos looked up at the sun, where its rays struck out from behind a cloud above the distant hills, and nodded as the herald and priests moved away from the battle, their duty done, to announce the Sacred Truce of the Olympic Games in other parts of war-torn Greece.
As the afternoon sun beat down on the gathering of men and carrion crows, both sides began to collect their dead and wounded from the field.
It had been an unplanned confrontation coming out of an accidental meeting of mercenaries, and a patrol of Theban and Attic allies. The cost had been great, but for the mercenaries on both sides, it had been another job, the last for a few months.
As the lochagoi made lists of the dead, noting their native polis, or deme if they knew it, the rest of the troops continued to pick up the bodies of the fallen and lay them in bloody rows beneath their shields.
Stefanos, son of Talos was quiet as he oversaw the men of his pentekostys. The living and the dead on that plain were faces he had seen before, fought with and against, over several years. There were many new faces too, young men, boys, for whom this had been their first engagement.
“Were we ever so young?” Kratos, Stefanos’ best and long-time friend said as he came up, wiping the sweat from his brow. “Seems hard to believe.”
“I suppose we were,” Stefanos said. “We were also better trained.”
“We had more opportunity to fight then.”
“There is always a fight to be had, even during the Sacred Truce,” Stefanos said, slapping Kratos on the shoulder. He stretched out his arms and rolled his head from side to side. He felt good, young and limber, despite his forty years. All of the war over the past twenty one years, including the march on foot back from the heart of Persia, had taught Stefanos and Kratos that life was meant to be taken, and lived, that kings and politicians, tyrants and philosophers did not give a damn about soldiers. The latter were pawns in the great game, and if one was going to play the game, he might as well get paid well for it.
It had been some years since they had seen their native Argos. They had actually decided that summer that they would finally return to see their families, Stefanos to see his father, Talos, the bronze smith, and his sister Cleo, a priestess of Hera at the Heraion of Argos.
Kratos longed to see his mother, and the three sisters he had left behind, beautiful women who were as tall and lean as their older brother, and were more than a match for any man. It still chafed at Kratos, the way that Stefanos had moved from one to the other of his sisters in the course of one hot Argive summer all those years ago, but the fact that they were still the best of friends and none of the girls hated Stafanos showed how very close they were.
“You two still heading back to Argos?” Pollux said to them as he heaved the body of a fallen warrior by himself and tossed it onto the growing pile of dead, swishing away a swarm of flies with the hem of his red cloak.
Pollux had met the two older men on the march back from Persia. He threw his lot in with them, and they had been close ever since. Pollux was a Spartan through and through, and the mercenary life suited him, filled a void that was left when there were no more battles to fight. Only Sparta ever took precedence. He turned down any job that would pit him against his fellow Lacedaemonians.
Stefanos and Kratos had no such qualms about fighting against the men of their own city.
Pollux leaned his shield against the trunk of a nearby olive tree and removed his helmet, tying his curly black hair back with a leather thong. “I’ll probably head back to Sparta,” he said. “King Agesilaus is still in Persia, and Lysander has been sent back to Sparta to be kept out of the fight. Might be there’s some opportunity there…” he mused.
“Don’t get caught up in the politics, Pollux. Bad for business, you know,” Kratos said.
“We’re all caught up in politics,” Kratos said. “It’s just that Spartan politics is more fun!” he slammed his fist on the face of his hoplon which was decorated with two serpents facing each other, fangs bared.
“You three!” came the harsh voice of their Achaean lochagos. “How about you help us dig the burial mounds so we can all get out of here?”
Stefanos stood up and walked over to the man, whose bushy, greying beard sprouted out to tickle the top of his muscled cuirass.
“We’re done here,” Stefanos said. “We’ll take our pay now.”
The man reddened in the face. “What do you mean you’re done here. No one’s done here until I say. I have rank.”
“And we’ll have the money you owe us for the last week,” Kratos added.
“Fucking mercenaries. Don’t you give a damn about anyone but yourselves. We need to honour our fallen brothers.”
“They’re not my brothers,” Stefanos said. “And yes, we do care about more than ourselves.” He put his fingers to his chin. “We care about food, wine… women… Maybe boys in his case,” Stefanos nodded toward Pollux who shrugged. “Did I miss anything?” he asked Kratos.
“No, I think that about covers it.”
“Well, you’re not getting a stater until those bodies are properly honoured,” the lochagos said. “Then you’ll get your pay.”
Stefanos’ fist flung out so quickly that the man had no time to react and was on the ground before he knew what had happened. When he looked up through the daze of flashing light, he could see Stefanos holding the pouch of coins that he had been carrying at his waist.
“This should about cover it, I think,” Stefanos said. “Next time, just pay right away and save yourself the headache.”
The three of them walked back to the group of mercenaries they had been with and distributed the pay that was owed. Once that was done, they hoisted their shields and spears, and began the long march through Megara and back into the Peloponnese, leaving the cities to clean up their own mess.
Memories in Bronze
Μνήμες σε Χάλκινο
Megara was choked with a long file of warriors heading for the Peloponnese and the sanctuary of Olympia, or back to their native villages or polei for the period of the Sacred Truce. Most were in a jovial mood, and one would have thought that they had not spent the last few years plunging both spear and blade into the bodies of their fellow Greeks.
Stefanos, Kratos, and Pollux travelled without worry, the three hoplites walking over the rocky mountains with the islands of Salamis and Aegina set in a sparkling blue sea to the south. They passed by Kakia Scala where a great monster was said to have always lurked in wait for travellers, to apprehend and devour them before tossing their bones down the cliffs into the sea. Both Kratos and Pollux’s grips on the shafts of their spears lessened as they passed safely through.
As their sandalled feet trod through beds of spring flowers of purple, red, and yellow, Stefanos shook his head at the light moods of all the travellers around them.
They would trade it all, the shield wall, the blood, the thrill of an enemy kill, for games. How can they so easily forget? he wondered.
The truth was that Stefanos, son of Talos had only known war since the age of nineteen when the Spartans attacked Argos at the battle of Hysiae, in the aftermath of their victory at Mantinea. Despite the horrors he had witnessed, including the death of many friends and neighbours, Stefanos had found he excelled in war, and the shield wall of the phalanx became his home.
But he did not remain in Argos. The elite force of the Argive Thousand had been, at the time, a close-knit group of men who seemed to spit at the efforts of anyone outside their circles, even if they had proved themselves worthy of the task.
Stefanos’ family began to experience hard financial times after the death of his mother, Hermia, a priestess of Hera at the Heraion of Argos, and so he chose the mercenary’s way of life. His father had been unable then, to carry out the bronze commissions that were coming his way, epinikion works among them, due to the sadness lodged deep in his creative heart.
Stefanos enjoyed the mercenary life, the independence of it, though it broke his father’s heart that his only son had turned his back on the craft that he so revered and loved. Talos had never been the same since, and though he did begin to work again, his bronzes became more pained, and sinister, displaying the darker side of Eris and ponos, the strife and toil that were every man’s lot in life.
Stefanos had competed in some of the crown games, and had been victorious in the javelin, hoplitodromos, and boxing at both Isthmia and Nemea, but he had never stayed for the victory feasts that came after the crowning. When the pine, and wild celery of Isthmia and Nemea had been placed upon his head, he had left the sanctuaries, his point made, offered his rewards to Hera at the temple where his mother had spent most of her life, and then got on with his own.
Sitting around a camp fire the night before they came out of the mountains of Megara and into Isthmia, Stefanos, Kratos, and Pollux shared freshly-cooked meat and memories of recent battles.
The constellations in the cool night sky looked down on them as they leaned against a grouping of massive boulders that protected their backs. Each man’s hoplon, doru, and xiphos were beside him, even though most of the travellers that night would not have dared to set upon three experienced hoplites of Argos and Sparta.
“How long since you’ve both been home?” Pollux asked as he tore into a hunk of steaming goat meat fresh off the spit.
“Six years,” Stefanos said casually, as he ate.
“What about you, Pollux?” Kratos asked. “When was the last time you saw Sparta?”
“I see Sparta every time I stand in the phalanx shield wall,” he said, smiling. “I’ve spent all my time with you amateurs, keeping you alive!” he laughed, his voice echoing off of the rocks about them, Stefanos and Kratos joining in. “In truth, I long to see the Eurotas valley again, to climb Taygetus and smell the fresh mountain air of my home, but I don’t know how long I’ll stay. Things are heating up with the Persian bastards again, so there might be a good bit of work to be done for Sparta. I assume you two would like to be a part of that should the opportunity arise?”
“You know us better than to ask a question like that,” Stefanos said, tossing a bone into the coals of the fire and sending sparks into the night air.
“Actually, I was considering taking part in the Olympiad,” Kratos said, causing the other two to look up at him.
“Really?” Pollux asked.
“Yes,” Kratos straightened. “We’re not getting any younger and, well, I think I could compete in the pentathlon. What better way to honour the Gods than to take all that I’ve learned on the field of Ares and win glory before the eyes of Zeus himself?”
Pollux nodded knowingly at Kratos, his pious Spartan side always seeing the right in honouring the Gods, but Stefanos shook his head.
“Why waste time at Olympia, Kratos? If King Agesilaus is waging war against the Persians in Ionia, then there will be work to be had, no? The Sacred Truce doesn’t apply to Persians.” Stefanos stopped eating and stared at his best friend. “Olympia is supposed to be hot and stinking during the Games. Why would you want to pack it in with all those crowds?”
“Why wouldn’t I?” Kratos said. “If this is my last chance… I could die on the battlefield tomorrow, or the day or year after that. I don’t want my legacy to be blood, and sacks of coin. I want to give some kind of glory to my family’s name.”
“You’ve never told me any of this.”
“I’ve been thinking about it the last few days. It makes sense.”
“Sense?” Stefanos said out loud.
“Makes sense to me,” Pollux said. “What does it matter? If Herakles began the games to honour his father, that seems right enough.”
“And, if I were to win, then any man in Argos would willingly betroth his daughter to me. I could finally have a family.”
“You’re both mad. A family?” Stefanos stood. “The fighting never stops, you know.”
“True,” agreed Pollux, “but the Gods are more important than butchery in the shield wall, and the Gods like the Games.”
Stefanos turned from the camp fire, picked up his doru, and disappeared into the darkness beyond the light of the fire.
Kratos jumped up to go after him, but Pollux stayed him.
“Let him be. You know how he’s always in his head. This is one of those times. They sat back down to finish eating.
Stefanos walked until he came to a rock outcrop jutting out over the clifftops to the sea below. The light of the moon and stars shone on the black depths and he stared at them, his spear across his shoulders, his arms up to hang from it.
He chided himself for being nervous to return to Argos, of seeing his sister Cleo, and his father. The last time he had been home, he had argued with Talos and they had parted with angry words. He loved his father, dearly, admired his work, but he also resented Talos’ lack of understanding or acceptance of his chosen life, a life that he had been forced into by circumstance and the Gods’ design.
Seeing Cleo again worried him even more. The last time he had been in Argos, he had changed her life, and though he was sure it had been for the better, he feared that she did not agree with that sentiment.
Ocnus, son of Nemos, had always been a lying cheat, and cruel beyond measure. When Stefanos had returned to Argos after another campaign in Boeotia to find that Ocnus had made an offer to Talos for Cleo’s hand in marriage, he had talked his father out of it, and at the same time, denied Cleo a family of her own.
The dowry offer had included, among other things, the bronze smithing business and family lands. Stefanos knew that Ocnus would treat Cleo like a slave, that he only cared for the profits in bronze and the selling of their lands.
Stefanos’ father had told him at the time that he was going to accept Ocnus’ offer because there was no chance that Stefanos himself would ever return to Argos to head the family, and because he was getting old.
But Stefanos had not wanted to see his father’s artistic legacy, much as he did not want to be a part of it, turned over to a fiend like Ocnus who would transform it into a base smelting business, cranking out ingots instead of works of art. He did not see himself as a bronze smith, but he certainly could see the beauty in what his father created, even though he had never told him as much.
When Talos agreed to call off the betrothal, Ocnus went on a rant against their family in the Agora. It was then that Stefanos approached him with witnesses, prodded him into attacking first, and then pounded his face into a pulp until he took back the things he had said.
The next day, Cleo, publicly humiliated, went into service at the temple of Hera.
Stefanos loved his father and sister, but the choices he had made, choices he had stood by, had caused them great pain. He had not been there for them, and the guilt, much as he hated it, was crushing him the closer he came to Argos.
Stefanos took a last look at the night sky, at Centaurus glinting down at him, and turned to go back to the fire and his friends.
As they came into Isthmia the following day, the welcome scents of pine and the salt-sea filled their nostrils.
Most of the travellers along the road carried on west to head over the mountains of Arkadia to Olympia, in Ellis, but Stefanos, Kratos, and Pollux turned south west toward the sanctuary at Nemea. Here, at the long altar before the temple of Zeus, they made offerings to the Protector of Travellers for helping them come this far, and asked that they might gain their destinations without worry.
With the sheep’s blood still fresh on his hands, Pollux turned to Stefanos and Kratos. “I guess this is farewell for now, brothers.”
The two men embraced their Spartan compatriot, not a little moved to see their warlike triad broken for a time.
“May the Gods guide us to you again soon,” Kratos said.
“If they desire it,” Pollux said plainly, “I’ll see you. And I’ll send word if there is room in the mercenary shield wall of Sparta.”
“Yes, do, my friend,” Stefanos said. “And forgive my glumness yesterday. Peace time makes me itchy.”
“Sometimes I wonder if you’re more Spartan than I am,” Pollux laughed. He then turned to Kratos. “Good luck in the Games. May the Gods grant you victory, and Nike’s crown rest lightly on your brow.”
With those parting words, Pollux hoisted his hoplon, satchel, and doru, and turned in the direction of Tegea, and then Sparta.
“I’m always sad to see that red cloak fade away,” Stefanos said as he watched Pollux march down the narrow track away from the sanctuary.
“Me too,” Kratos said, putting his hand on Stefanos’ shoulder. “So, you ready to go home?”
“No. But let’s go anyway.”
Together, they took the Argos road directly to the south, their hoplons on their backs, and their spears pointing the way home.
“Six years…” Stefanos mused. “I wonder how your sisters are.”
“Don’t even think about it!”
The next day, when the plain of Argos opened up before their eyes, both men stopped to look at it, quietly leaning on their spears in the fading light. The city was coloured by a pink sunset over the mountains to the West, and the smoke from the sanctuaries of Hera, Athena, Apollo and Aphrodite rose up over the city giving it a dream-like countenance.
High on the hill of Larisa, south west of the sanctuaries of the Aspis, the heads of sentries could be spotted along the fortifications where the Argive Thousand stood watch over the plains to the south and west, ever-ready to meet an attack by Argos’ enemies.
“Looks the same as ever,” Kratos said.
“Looks can be deceiving.”
“They’re your family, Stefanos. You’ve provided for them when they were in need, and whether Cleo likes it or not, you did her a favour. She’s always looked up to you, my friend.”
Stefanos nodded, unconvinced. “Maybe I can eat with your family tonight, and see mine tomorrow morning?”
“I don’t think so,” Kratos said, no humour in his voice this time as they continued on their way toward the city walls.
They entered Argos through the north gate, to the left of the great theatre, where the guards stopped them.
“What business do you have in Argos?” said the file leader.
“We’re Argives,” Stefanos said, eyeing the group of ten men.
“We’ve been fighting abroad. Just back from Eleutherai,” Kratos added. “I’m Kratos, son of Lichas, and this is Stefanos, son of Talos. The Sacred Truce is on, so we’ve come home before heading to the Games.”
Stefanos shot a look at Kratos, but said nothing. He could feel himself getting impatient.
“Mercenaries, eh?” the file leader said. “We don’t need any trouble within the city walls. We’ve had enough outside of them.”
“We won’t be fighting in our family homes, if that’s what you’re worried about,” Stefanos said. “Can we pass? We’re citizens. You can’t bar our entry.”
“I can have your weapons though,” the man said.
Stefanos stared at him and stepped forward to look him in the eye. “You’ve no need to do that, friend.”
There was a lingering silence as Kratos and the other guards looked at the file leader and Stefanos.
“No need. You may enter. Welcome home,” he said, his voice dripping with sarcasm.
Stefanos pushed past him and beneath the massive gate house, Kratos following.
“Your propensity for making friends never ceases to amaze me,” Kratos said as they made their way to the agora through which they needed to pass to get to the neighbourhood where their families lived on the southern end of the city.
“They’ve no right to treat Argive citizens that way.”
“No? Even though we’ve raised arms against Argos’ allies?”
Despite the onset of evening, the city streets were full of citizens, and the agora filled with groups of men in heated discussion about everything from politics and war, to art, theatre, and the latest bronze sculptor to make a name for himself.
Stefanos and Kratos looked around at the familiar alcoves where they had run rampant as boys, the colonnades where they had played hide-and-seek, and the bouleuterion where they had first heard the news that Argos was officially at war with Sparta whose forces were making their way toward Hysiae.
The two armed mercenaries were met with not a few looks of anger and disgust as they made their way through the crowds. People cleared a way for them, some out of fear, others out of intense dislike, but Stefanos was not bothered. It made their progress that much easier.
When they reached the southern end of the agora, a group of men did stand in their way and Stefanos made directly for them.
“Here we go,” he said to Kratos, who loosened the grip on his spear shaft. “Ocnus! Is that you?”
The group of five men stepped forward. Their leader, Ocnus son of Nemos, stood there in the uniform of the Argive Thousand, decked out in a matching blue and white thorax and cloak.
“What are you doing here?” Ocnus demanded.
“I live here,” Stefanos said. “I see the Thousand’s standards have dropped drastically.”
Ocnus took a step forward, but Stefanos did not budge. Ocnus was a big man, but lacked the strength and confidence that Stefanos possessed, even though he feigned as much.
“I also see your own standards are the same,” Stefanos said, looking beyond Ocnus to the same four men that had always backed him up, Krikor, Biton, Ampyx, and Glaucus. “Boys,” Stefanos nodded. “Still buggering this one?”
“Listen to me, you mercenary piece of shit!” Ocnus grabbed Stefanos’ thorax and shook. “Things are different now, and you owe me.”
“Maybe you’re right,” Stefanos said. “Here’s payment with interest for laying your hands on me just now.” Before Ocnus could react, Stefanos’ head slammed into his face, crushing his nose and sending him back into his friends’ arms as he howled. “I thought I’d reset it for you. I did a botch job last time.”
Kratos laughed uneasily as people began to gather and stare at them. “Let him be, Stefanos. He’s part of the elite guard now. He deserves our respect.”
The two men laughed and continued on their way, but not before Ocnus stood up again, holding his bleeding nose to yell at them.
“Hope you enjoy your homecoming! The Gods have a sense of humour!”
Stefanos and Kratos continued on their way, but Ocnus’ words thrust a sliver of dread into Stefanos’ thoughts.
Stefanos arrived at the door of his family’s modest home where he stood beside the bronze Herm that warded off evil and guarded the home. He found he could not open the door immediately, and so he stood there, his hand fidgeting with the handles of his hoplon’s grip and the shaft of his doru.
Some warrior… he chided himself. I can face down elite infantry or Persian cavalry, but can’t even knock on the door of my childhood home…
Shaking his head, and laughing a little at himself, Stefanos raised his hand to knock on the door, but as he did so, it opened and out came a doctor in a rough-spun Ionic chiton. Stefanos stepped back, surprised, to allow the doctor through.
“Good evening,” the doctor said, nodding and moving past Stefanos with his case to walk down the street.
As the door was closing, Stefanos put his foot in and pushed through.
“Doctor, did you forget some…thing…” a tired voice said, trailing off.
Cleo gasped and took a step back as her brother appeared before her, fully armed and armoured, as he had been the last time he had come into their home, six years before. Her hand shook as it covered her mouth, and tears began to pool at the corners of her brown eyes.
“Cleo. What’s going on?” He looked at her, his heart tightening. She looked pale and tired, her once-shiny black hair gone to grey, even though she was three years younger than him. He leaned his spear and shield against the back of the door, and reached out to her.
Her arms wrapped quickly about his neck and she held him tightly, despite his thorax, as emotions swept through them both in the fading light of the small courtyard.
After a few moments, he held her gently at arm’s length and looked into her eyes. “Cleo, what’s happened? Why aren’t you at the Heraion?”
Cleo nodded, wiped the tears at the corners of her eyes and spoke. “Father is dying, Stefanos. The Gods will take him soon.”
She nodded. “It is good Zeus and Hera have brought you home safely to you family.” She began to walk beneath the small olive tree that stood in the middle of the dirt courtyard, and made for the open door that led into the stone house. “He’ll want to see you…” she said as she disappeared inside.
Stefanos stood there for a few moments, trying to register all that was happening, afraid of what he might find beyond the door of his childhood home – a smell of death, and the angry words of a dying man? He was not sure he wanted to deal with that, but picked up his shield and spear and walked slowly after her, the branches of the olive tree brushing his hair lightly as he passed beneath it. He glanced at the bronze statue of the the goddess Hera which stood at the far end of the yard, beneath an arch of bougainvillea, and entered the house.
It was dark inside, but for a few oil lamps. The kitchen smelled strongly of herbs and the long table to one side was empty, except for a couple of wooden bowls with the remains of half-eaten barley broth, a plate with crumbs of bread, and a pitcher of water with a clay cup.
Stefanos leaned his doru and hoplon in a corner, put down his satchel and looked at Cleo. “Where is the slave that we hired last time I was here? She was supposed to help.”
“I sold her when father became ill and could not work anymore,” Cleo said, her voice harder now, drained of the shock and sadness of minutes before. Now she turned on her brother with hard, chiding eyes. “Six years, Stefanos… Six years!”
“It’s as it has always been,” he answered peevishly.
“Yes, but you could have stopped in Argos once in while. Even I know the fighting stops in the months of Gamelion, Anthesterion, and Elaphebolion.”
“It doesn’t stop for a mercenary. People don’t stop having enemies in the winter months.”
“Are you a common thug now, wagging your spear to collect overdue rents for others?”
“Mind your tongue, woman. I didn’t come home to be chided.”
“You didn’t come to see our father dying either, did you? But you will.”
Stefanos was silent. He did not want to fight with her. Not now. Not ever. But it seemed they would. “I guess you’re still angry with me?”
Cleo looked up from the pot she was stirring above the fire and shook her head. “No. Of course not. Not for that.”
“Are you sure? I just saw Ocnus in the street. He’s still raging over it.”
“The Gods know you did me a favour, exposing him to father. I have a good life, serving the goddess. I have food, shelter, and a means of helping others. It can be difficult, but it is right and destined.”
“And that is your toil?” Stefanos said softly.
“Yes.” Cleo nodded, resigned and determined at once, and walked over to her brother to lay the palm of her hand upon his rough, sun-darkened cheek. “You should go in and see him. But be quiet, and gentle. I don’t want him over-excited.”
Stefanos stared down the small corridor that led to their father’s room. It was dark, but for the flickering of a single lamp which hung from the ceiling mid-way. Without another word, he walked toward the open, olive wood door and entered.
The room was full of the smoke from incense burning at a small shrine where statues of the Gods, Apollo, Asclepius, Igeia, and Hera peered from the smoke toward the narrow bed in the corner of the room.
Stefanos gasped as he laid his eyes upon his father, Talos, and had to lean against the wall to support himself.
The man who had once had hard, muscled limbs like Haephestus himself now lay there weak and white, his skin loose upon his bones, his once-kind, creative, and eager face now contorted and angry, even in sleep. His body shuddered with some sort of pain, but Stefanos wondered if it was not the regret and tortured dreams that the Gods felt compelled to send the aged as they walked towards the banks of the black river.
A wave of intense sadness swept through Stefanos, and he moved toward the bed to kneel beside Talos. He gripped the frail, calloused hand with his own, and leaned forward.
“Father?” he whispered. “Father, it’s me. Stefanos. I’m here.”
For a moment there was no reaction and if he had not seen the shuddering breath rising and falling in his father’s chest, Stefanos would have thought him dead.
“All will be well, Father. I’m here. I can help.”
The frail hand gripped Stefanos’ suddenly, and Talos’ rheumy eyes blinked open and closed a few times before they searched for the source of the voice and found it. They focussed on Stefanos beneath creased brows, and the hand pulled away.
“Leave me…” Talos croaked, before turning onto his side, his back to his son.
“Father, please. I’m home. I wish to make peace with you and see you well again. I didn’t know…”
“You didn’t care…” Talos accused. “Leave me. I need to rest.”
Stefanos stood up, dizzy from the smell of dying that hung in the small room, and turned to make his way out. In the doorway, he turned back. “I’ll be in the other room with Cleo if you need anything.”
When he came back into the kitchen, he sat down to a bowl of steaming broth and a plate of bread and cheese which Cleo had set out for him. A small cup of wine had also been put out, which Stefanos took right away, tipping a little onto the floor before drinking.
“How long has he been like this?”
“Two months,” Cleo said, sitting down opposite her brother. “He has good days and bad days. Today was a bad one. He’s had more of those lately. But tomorrow, once he’s registered that you’ve returned, I think we’ll find he has a lot to say…and little time to say it in.”
“What does the doctor say?”
“Just that it’s the Gods’ will, his time to go. The truth is that I think father has lost his will to go on. The best we can hope for is for you two to make peace so that he can go into the Afterlife with a measure of joy in his heart.”
She sighed, and seemed to deflate before Stefanos’ eyes. It was then that he realized the fullness of her despair, her loneliness, the burden he had left her with while he was away fighting on foreign fields.
“I’m sorry you’ve had to deal with this, but I can’t apologize for following the path that the Gods have set before me.”
Her stare was fierce, but only for a moment. Then resignation overtook her anger and frustration, the resentment she had stored away for the brother she had once loved and honoured above all others.
“But, I will make peace with him, whatever it takes,” he said, a part of him knowing he would regret it. “How long do you have leave from the Heraion?”
“As long as it takes. The head priestess is very accommodating.”
“Because of Mother?” he asked, and Cleo nodded.
Their mother, Hermia, had been one of the the most devout priestesses of the Heraion, a woman whom the goddess seemed to bless every day with skill and foresight, at least until the day she took her.
Stefanos and Cleo were silent, each staring at the table, alone with their own ghosts for a few moments. Then Stefanos stood and went to his satchel which he had deposited near the doorway.
“Well, this should help ease things and pay for a monument when the time comes,” he said, removing a heavy leather purse from the satchel and dropping it on the table with a thud.”
Cleo nodded but did not smile. “That will help.” After a few moments, she rose from her chair. “I’ll go and check on him.”
Stefanos watched his sister go back down the dark hall to their father’s room. “Gods help me in this.”
After a few minutes, he finished the last of his broth, bread, and cheese and leaned on the table, his eyes fixated on the fire. He felt warm all of a sudden and rose to unstrap the thorax which he had not taken off, so accustomed was he to wearing it at all times.
He laid it and his xiphos on the floor beside his satchel, hoplon, and doru. After unstrapping his greaves, Stefanos, now cooler in his chiton, went outside into the courtyard.
The stars were out, and as bright as he remembered from beneath the olive tree where he had sat so many years as a youth, contemplating his choices as every young man is bound to do in the life given him by the Gods. With his back to the trunk of the tree, Stefanos looked up at that night sky, the noise of Argos drowned out by thoughts of what he might say to his father the following day, if he yet lived, and what his father would say to him, if he chose to speak to him.
When the cock crowed in the yard the following morning, Stefanos was still abed, a single ray of sunlight angling its way into his plain room to light his face. The room felt stuffy after so many nights in the open air, lonely after countless nights in the arms of numerous women. He felt an urge for such a woman then, but suppressed it when he remembered where he was, and the situation in which he found himself. He sat on the edge of the small bed, rubbing his eyes and short beard. After relieving himself in the clay chamber pot, he strapped on his sandals and went out of the room.
Cleo greeted him in the kitchen, having laid out a bowl of beans, hard bread, and a cup of water.
“He’s feeling better today,” she said without preamble.
“Will he see me?” Stefanos asked.
“What do you think?” Cleo answered, watching as her brother began to eat and drink. “All I ask is that you don’t upset him overmuch. Remember the man he was before mother passed, if you can.”
Stefanos’ mind ran over images of his father’s workshop then, of beautiful bronzes in various stages of creation, the sweet gleam of the shaped metal, and the sparkle in Talos’ eyes as he held his son in his arms and showed him around. The time when Talos had shown the finished statue of Hera to his wife and children stood out among the dusty memories.
That statue, he had told them as their mother smiled proudly, was going to stand in the Heraion of Argos for ages. It was Talos’ crowning achievement, and even as a young boy, Stefanos remembered the pride that swelled in honour of his father then.
“I’ll stay calm,” Stefanos said to his sister, snapping out of his reverie, and finishing his final bites of food.
A few minutes later, he was filling the door frame of his father’s room.
Talos was lying flat, staring at the ceiling, his face pondering some thought or design such as he used to when getting a new idea for a bronze. When he realized Stefanos was standing there, his eyes darted that way angrily and he fought to push himself onto his creaking elbows, to sit up and lean against the wall at his back.
Stefanos rushed forward to offer help, but his father waived his hands away.
“If I can hammer and shape the limbs of a bronze god, I can raise myself from my bed,” Talos said, his voice and breathing laboured, though there was fire in its depths, once as hot and strong as the forge which he had pumped himself.
“Father, it’s good to see you,” Stefanos said, kneeling beside the old man. A lump caught in his throat as he reached out for the hand again, and felt the fragility of the once-strong bones. “I’m sorry I have not been home for so long.”
“We all have to deal with our choices, but I am glad that you’ve returned now, before it’s…” a few more breaths, “…before it’s too late.”
“Don’t talk like that,” Stefanos said.
“You can’t escape your fate, son. When the Gods take me, I will smile at the beauty I have left behind, the beautiful bronzes that decorate sanctuaries, homes, agorae, and shrines from Corinth to Tiryns.”
Talos smiled, and seemed to grow in strength a little before Stefanos’ eyes, but the latter knew that meant he would be ready to argue.
“So, tell me of your battles then. Where has…where has your life led you?”
Stefanos stared at the aged eyes, the creased brow, and the tangled white beard stained with soot from the forges.
“I’ve just come from a battle near Eleutherai. A small skirmish. Kratos, and our Spartan friend, Pollux, have been going from job to job for some time during the Nicia’s peace and -”
“You fight during the declared peace?” his father cut in.
“Yes, well sometimes. There is always fighting.”
“And will you fight during the Sacred Truce that has just been declared?” Talos eyed his son angrily then, making it obvious that such an act would be a disgrace.
“Well…perhaps. King Agesilaus is in Ionia, fighting the Persians. The Sacred Truce does not apply to them. I’m sure Kratos and I will be able to find work there. My skills as a pentekonter in the phalanx are well-regarded.”
“I see. You are friends with the Spartans still. I assume the memories of their atrocities at Mantinea and Hysiae have faded then.”
“No. But neither have those of the Athenians I fought with on Melos, when they slaughtered the men and enslaved the women and children.” Stefanos’ face grew hard and angry then, he could feel it contorting at the memory and fought down the urge to yell, or hit something, minding his sister’s wish to stay calm. “I set my shield and spear in the line of the side I choose, Father, those that pay well for my skills. The Gods honour prowess on the field of Ares.”
“They also punish hubris, and you are dangerously close. I am still saddened that you decided to take up arms with the Spartans under that animal Gilippus.”
“We all do things we are not proud of.”
“So there is some remorse?” Talos said, coughing loudly, and reaching for the cup of water on the table beside the bed.
Stefanos reached for it quickly and held it to his father’s lips, letting him catch his breath afterward.
Talos looked back at his son. “Syracuse was many years ago, and you cannot have been fighting petty battles all this time. If you were not here, where were you?”
“I went to Persia, Father.”
“Persia?” Talos was surprised at this, and sat up a bit straighter. “What were you doing there?”
“We took up arms with the satrap, Cyrus, a friend to the Greeks. We were to help him take the throne for himself.”
“You fought for the Persians?” Talos turned away. “Son, you have shamed yourself…”
“Against Persians, Father!” Stefanos’ said, his voice angry now. “I was fighting against the Great King. Would it be better to go back to fighting Greeks on Greek soil?”
“But you just told me that you have been doing so.”
“I’m not going to argue with you about this for the thousandth time,” Stefanos stood and leaned against the wall, distancing himself from his father in case he felt like striking the old man.
“You lost that battle in Persia, from what I heard.”
“We were betrayed, yes. When Cyrus was killed at Cunaxa, all ten thousand of us had to march out of Persia with their cavalry and archers nipping at our heals the entire way. Only thanks to the skill and determination of a good friend were we able to make the journey home.”
“No. An Athenian, who has befriended Spartans, as I have.”
Talos’ weakly clenched fist pounded the bedding at his side as if he was back in his forge. “You fought with Persians, eastern animals who burned the Acropolis and artistic treasures that stood there… And you befriend Spartans, a people who don’t even believe in the merits of artistic endeavour, and have no art to speak of. They deal only in death, and the belittling of their fellow human beings.”
“Glory on the battlefield is enduring, Father,” Stefanos stepped closer now, feeling his long-held resentment creeping into his veins like an unstoppable poison. “It is what matters most in this world. We live in a world of war, and only the strong and skilled will be remembered!” His voice was a shout now, and he could hear Cleo’s hesitant footsteps in the corridor. Let her listen! he thought.
Talos was shaking his old head now, his eyes not fiery or angry, but sad and despairing. “What you speak of, my son, is what matters least in this world. You’ve turned your back on the beauties of life, and the world around you. When the battles are finished, and the crows have gorged themselves on the dead, the remnants of war are but dust in time, carnage to fade away and be forgotten. And rightly so!”
Talos took a few more breaths, his lungs sounding like they were going to burst, but he carried on, desperate to speak his mind, as if he had thought it over all the years his son was away.
“Art and beauty in the world are what matter…they are the things that endure. The likeness of a god or goddess in bronze, a hero or victor crowned by Nike, will be remembered and admired, inspire others for ages to come. Can the same be said of a man who expertly thrusts his doru into the body of another man in the front line of a phalanx in a petty skirmish on the other side of the world?”
Stefanos did not answer. He was done with the conversation, and realized he had gone too far. His father had weakened before his eyes, the effort of their debate all to much for him.
“You should rest, Father.” Stefanos said, helping to lay Talos back down, even as the old man’s eyes stared up into his, pleading, willing him to understand the wisdom he had imparted to him. “I’ll come back to see you later, yes?”
Talos nodded and closed his eyes, his rough breathing haunting Stefanos as he walked down the corridor.
“What are you thinking?” Cleo snapped as Stefanos came into the kitchen. “Are you trying to kill him?”
“I don’t know what happened.” Stefanos rubbed his dark hair in frustration as if harassed by flies. “He always manages to rile me. Even now, he’s full of spite.”
“No he’s not, Stefanos,” Cleo said, her eyes meeting his as she laid a hand on his hard, scarred arm. “He cares deeply for you. He’s always wanted more for you.”
“You think so?”
“I know it. He hates the world that forced you into war against fellow Greeks. To our father, the bronze of beloved Hera is not his greatest creation, Stefanos… You are.”
Stefanos stared at her intensely, almost despising her for having said what she did, but he held back the vitriol that came to mind.
“I need to go out,” he said, moving away from her to pull a small pouch of coins, and his grey chlamys from his satchel. “I’ll see you later…” he said putting on the cloak and heading out into the grey day.
Stefanos moved through the streets of Argos in a daze, the oppressive clouds pressing down on him from above as thunder rolled in the distant mountains on the other side of the gulf to the south-west.
He walked quickly, making his way to Kratos’ house several blocks away. His friend always had a good ear for listening, and understood Stefanos’ divergence in belief from his father. If conversation was not needed, Kratos was always up for a good bout of drinking.
When Stefanos arrived at the door, he knocked loudly. There was a shuffling inside, and then hesitation behind the door.
When it creaked open, a slave stood there, head bowed low.
“Yes?” the young man asked.
“Where is Kratos? I must speak with him.”
“Master Kratos is at the gymnasium. Training…”
“Training? For what?”
“For the Olympiad, of course,” came another voice as the slave stepped aside.
The door opened to reveal one of Kratos’ sisters standing there in a pale, rose-coloured peplos. Her blond hair fell about her shoulders, and her eyes stared unabashedly at Stefanos.
“Anticlea?” Stefanos said, smiling. “You’re looking well.”
“So are you, Stefanos. What do you want with my brother?”
“To talk. Has he definitely decided to go the Games then?”
“Yes. He has.”
“When will he be back? I need to speak with him.” Stefanos could not help looking over Kratos’ younger sister, the curve of her breasts beneath the peplos, the soft shoulders and white skin.
Anticlea smiled. “He just left, so will not be back for some time,” she said. “My mother and sisters are also gone, just now, to the agora. I’m afraid you won’t be able to greet them for a long time either.”
Her eyes stared at his again, and he felt his loins stir as he met her gaze.
“I’m thirsty. Might I trouble you for a cup of water, Anticlea?”
“It is no trouble. But the cistern is nearly empty. We do have some honeyed wine, though. Will that suffice?”
“I remember your honeyed wine. It was always the best,” Stefanos said, walking over the threshold and following her into the living area as the slave closed the door behind them.
“Anthos, you may leave us. I will fetch the wine and serve our guest,” Anticlea said to the slave.
Without a word, the slave slunk away to his own room, and when the door closed in the distance, Anticlea’s arms wrapped quickly around Stefanos’ neck and he pulled her in close to feel her body and lips pressed against him. She laughed as he hoisted her, and carried her down the corridor to the women’s chambers where her sleeping area was.
For the next couple of hours, Stefanos lost himself in Anticlea’s soft body and the pleasures of Aphrodite, managing to forget all the racing thoughts that had chased him to Kratos’ doorway.
He smiled to himself as he walked through the wet streets of Argos. The rain had passed, the sun was coming out, and Anticlea had been as lively as ever. He knew Kratos would be furious, but that his anger would die away within hours.
As Stefanos rounded a corner, headed for the baker’s shop on the road perpendicular to one of the local gymnasia, he bumped into Kratos.
“There you are!” Stefanos said. “I was just at your place looking for you.”
“I wasn’t there,” Kratos said suspiciously. “I was at the gymnasium.”
“I know. Anticlea told me,” Stefanos said, unable to hide his smile. “She made sure to share some of her expertly made honeyed wine. True nectar!”
“She what!” Kratos roared, knowing the look that crossed his friend’s features.
“Pandarus!” Stefanos suddenly yelled, seeing the man Kratos had been with coming around the corner.
“Stefanos!” the man named Pandarus said, walking up to the younger man and kissing him on both cheeks. “It is good to see you,” he said.
Pandarus, a former victor at the Pythian and Nemean Games, had been a family friend of both Stefanos and Kratos’ families, and had trained the boys in athletics from an early age. Even at the age of sixty, his body was still solid, well-muscled and well-proportioned. His hair had thinned to almost nothing.
“I was just helping Kratos with his training for the pentathlon at Olympia. Finally, he’s going to compete in the Great Games,” Pandarus said.
“Well, he could have no better trainer, my friend,” Stefanos said. “You look well.”
“The Gods have blessed me with the will to carry on training in my old age. I can’t abide the life of laziness that makes so many men bulge in places they shouldn’t.”
“I hear honeyed-wine helps too,” Stefanos said, glancing playfully at Kratos, the latter shooting him an angry look.
“I’ll take your word for it!” laughed Pandarus. “Come, will you take food with me? I still receive free meals in Argos for my wins at the games, guests included!”
“How can we say no?” Stefanos said.
“After the workout you just put me through, Pandarus, I could eat a whole boar!” Kratos said. “Lead the way!”
“Pandarus! Take a seat!” yelled the tavern keeper when the three men entered the front room of The Iron Fist, and made their way to the inner courtyard where there were a few empty tables beneath a fig tree.
“Thank you, Iphitus!” Pandarus yelled. “I bring with me two former victors as well, though they’ve never been in Argos long enough to claim your hospitality!”
“You’re all welcome. I’ll bring food in a few minutes,” Iphitus said, bringing over a krater of watered wine and three clay cups “Enjoy!”
“I should have claimed my victories sooner,” Stefanos said.
“Yes,” said Pandarus, “But from what Kratos has told me, you boys have seen so much action over the years, you would not have had the time.”
“True,” Stefanos agreed. “Steady work for men like us, from Syracuse to Babylon!”
Pandarus sipped his wine, opting not to say anything about that. “I’m just glad you’re both back safely. I’ve heard stories of that march back from Persia…ten thousand men! The Gods must love you.”
“Which is why I’m opting to enter the Olympiad this one last time,” Kratos said. “I can feel it in my bones… Nike is waiting for me.”
Stefanos looked at his friend and realized that he had never seen such sincerity and determination in his face.
“You’re really going to do it?”
“Yes,” Kratos said. “And you should too. You’re one of the best boxers I know, and unbeatable in the hoplitodromos.”
“I’m not interested,” Stefanos said, sitting back and crossing his arms. He began to suspect that this meeting was not a coincidence.
“Your chances are good, Stefanos,” Pandarus said evenly, leaning forward on the table, the veins in his thick, leathery arms pulsating.
“Can we talk about something else?” Stefanos said stubbornly. “We haven’t seen you in years, Pandarus. What news?”
Pandarus sat back and went through the news about local athletes, his own training school, and his frustration with the local ephebes who seemed to be growing more fat and lazy. Once he had vented for a time, he turned to Stefanos once more.
“I’m sorry about your father, Stefanos. He has always been a good friend and supporter. I visited him last week after seeing your sister at the Heraion. I’m much saddened to see him in his current state.”
“Thank you. I’m just glad I’ve come home now, though some things have not changed; we fight as much as we ever did.”
“Such is the way between fathers and sons. But I know for a fact that he is proud of you.”
“A noble effort, Pandarus, but my father made his thoughts about me perfectly clear this morning.” He turned to Kratos. “That’s why I came to your house.”
“I see,” Kratos crossed his arms. “Seeking comfort between my sister’s thighs?”
Stefanos could see his friend’s jaw set tightly and wondered for a moment if he would strike him, but Kratos held back.
“Well,” laughed, Pandarus. “Such activities and urges are, I dare say, signs of a healthy individual. But really, Stefanos, your best friend’s sisters?”
“They are the most beautiful women in Argos!” Stefanos said.
“Nice try,” Kratos said, leaning back as platters of roasted meats, cheeses, and fresh bread were laid on the table by Iphitus.
“Enjoy!” the tavern keeper said, taking the krater to add more wine.
The three men ate in silence for a while, each busy enjoying the food set before them.
“I’ve seen some pretty amazing bouts on the skamma these last years,” Pandarus said, going back to athletics. “One lad from Epidaurus defeated thirteen opponents in the boxing by exhausting them for hours, dodging faster than anyone I’ve seen, except yourself,” he added to Stefanos. “He always won by single knockout.”
“Why’d he lose on number fourteen?” Stefanos asked.
“Hubris set in, my guess is. Seems his opponent had learned his technique, and feigned ignorance of it. He play tired, having jumped around for a long time, and then, when the boy from Epidaurus let his guard down, he knocked the teeth out of his head with a single punch. Never seen anything like it.”
“Gods. All his teeth?” Stefanos took note of the chewing he was able to do at that moment, and was grateful he was as fast as he was.
“I’ll say it again, Stefanos,” Pandarus added, throwing a clean bone down on the table. “You were always one of my best students, and from what I can see, war has kept you strong.”
“And I’ll say it again, my friend. The answer is no.”
Over the next few days, Talos’ condition became worse, and Stefanos raged at his own incapacity to help his father.
In returning to Argos, wandering its streets, and hearing the familiar bustle of his childhood deme, Stefanos’ memories, which he had buried deeply, had become chaotic in his mind, churned like the sand of a seabed when waves crash upon it, over and over.
He had decided to help Kratos train at the gymnasium for his upcoming competitions. There was still some time for the latter to get to Olympia for the Scrutiny, the time one month before the Games when the Hellanodikai decide who is eligible and worthy enough to compete.
Stefanos decided to help his friend for all they had been through over the years, and he could see how much it meant to Kratos. Besides, it passed the time, distracted him from darker thoughts, and helped him to stay fit for battle as he hoped to be heading for Persia soon.
However, he realized as the days passed and things got worse at home, he could not leave his father.
One day, after training with Kratos, and visiting the baths, Stefanos’ steps led him to the Heraion outside of the eastern walls of the city. He did not enter the sacred precinct, but sat upon a boulder outside the sanctuary, his eyes taking in the gathering of buildings, the temple of Hera where smoke rose from the altar which sat before the aged columns.
He remembered his mother, Hermia, then, and how she had appeared in her white priestess’ robes. He used to walk out to the very spot where he sat at that moment, surrounded by spring wild flowers, to watch for her, ready to walk home with her on the days when she returned home.
The wind whipped across the plain as Stefanos sat there, Zephyrus out of the mountains of the Peloponnese to the West. He sat there exposed, his head in his hands, staring at the Heraion, at the ground, at the sky above, tormenting himself with thoughts of happier, carefree times of which there had been too few in his life.
He had spent many more joyous moments in the shield wall during his life, revelling in the skill and strength that made him a terror on the battlefield to his opponents, and a strong ally to the men beside him.
“At least I have that…” he said to himself, suddenly missing the feel of his hoplon and doru in his hands.
For a moment the wind stilled, and the air grew cool around him, the light brighter, almost blinding.
Stefanos hopped down from the boulder into the grass, sending a snake slithering away. Then, he almost collapsed.
My son… I have missed you.
His mother stood before him, her once-white robes dirty and tattered, her skin as pale as chalk. Her face looked down at him pitifully, and she reached out to him.
“Mother?” Stefanos shuddered, backing away until his back was against the boulder. He closed his eyes.
Do not fear me, the shade said. How I’ve missed you, my son…
“Get a grip, Stefanos,” he told himself, before opening his eyes to reassure himself it was just his own imagination.
When he looked up again, it was still there, watching him, mouthing words he did not want to hear.
“Why are you here?” he asked.
Talos’ time is near, Stefanos. Your father will pass from the world soon. You must…you must…
“What must I do?”
Ease his passing…lighten his heart… The shade smiled sadly. Make peace with him, Stefanos, for he has loved you since the day you were born, even more than the very fires of his own forge…
Stefanos shut his eyes tightly, fighting the unfamiliar sting of tears in his eyes. He pressed the muscles of his back into the rough edges of the rock behind him, opened his eyes, and found himself alone again, the heat of the sun beating down once more, the wind wrapping itself about him. He stared at the distant Heraion as he stood up, brushing off his chiton, and turning to go back to the city.
He picked his way through the crowds of men, groups of boys playing, and packs of stray dogs and cats at all of their heals. After a time, his footsteps led him to his father’s workshop, a place where he had spent many hours watching, and listening to his father speak at length about smelting, sculpting, and the beauty of bronze.
Stefanos opened the doorway to see the workshop dusty, cold, and unused. His nostrils filled with the familiar tang of molten bronze, his ears with the hammer and tap of tools to shape it. He could see his father’s strong hands shaping the hard material into things of beauty and his heart was filled with a longing to see that man again, a man he had admired and looked up to like the heroes of the past.
The dark reality of that quiet workshop robbed him of the memories, and he was left staring at the unfinished lump of bronze on the dais at the centre of the room. He presumed it to be the last thing Talos had been working on, and moved toward it to pull the sheet off.
Dust fell all around him and he waved his hands to clear it away. When it settled, he stared at the unfinished bronze of what appeared to be a warrior, the feet bare, greaves leading up to solid thighs, a leather skirt and muscled torso. But there it ended, unfinished, unpolished and rough.
“Must be an Ares commission?” Stefanos said to himself, picking up the sheet and placing it back over the bronze. He walked over to the anvil where the heavy hammer lay, and slipped his fingers around it. It did not feel right in his hand. It had been too long. He was not his father.
Stefanos pounded the anvil once, the dead ring echoing in the workshop one time before he put it down and made his way to the door. Before leaving, he turned to look a last time at the dusty interior that had been lit by the fires of creativity and inspiration, then closed the door and went home.
“Father!” Stefanos yelled when he entered the courtyard, running past the olive tree and bursting into the kitchen where Cleo spun, surprised and putting her hands up.
“What is it?” she asked.
“Is he…” Stefanos panted. “Is he?” He could not say the word.
“He’s as good as can be expected when the end draws near,” she said, walking up to him and placing her hand upon his heart. “He’s asked to see you as soon as you returned home.”
Stefanos nodded, and took a few deep breaths before downing a cup of water.
“Where were you?” Cleo asked. “Not at the gymnasium the entire time?”
“No. I went to the Heraion…and then to father’s workshop.”
Stefanos could tell that both those places haunted his sister as well, their measure and meaning morphing over time into something less than happy. He touched her hand, and turned to go to their father’s bedside.
Stefanos found Talos sitting up, staring at his own hands, turning them over curiously, scrutinizing them.
“It’s a strange thing to look at yourself and not recognize the person you have become,” he said without looking up at Stefanos. “I’ve honoured the Gods all my life, enjoyed my daily toils. And yet…” he coughed roughly, spittle mingled with blood falling from his mouth. “And yet, the changes they have wrought upon me seem cruel reward.”
“Father,” Stefanos said softly, taking a square of linen from the table and dabbing at Talos’ mouth. “Such changes are not wrought upon bronze, are they?”
“No!” Talos’ face lit up, and he smiled. “They are not. Bronze, if cared for, is eternal, not this!” he said, pinching at the loose flesh of his arm. “Not this…”
Stefanos sat on the edge of the bed, hunched over, staring at the worn marble floor, rubbing his jaw slowly, listening to the shallow breathing behind him.
“I have always honoured Eris agathos,” Talos said. “Good strife, is what makes a good man. It matters in all aspects of one’s life.”
“What are you getting at?” Stefanos sat up and looked at Talos.
“You are aner agathos…a good man. But you have honoured Kakochartos for too long.”
“Kakochartos?” Stefanos repeated, his voice angry. Why can’t he just say something kind? “My ponos, Father, has always been war. I have been on the front line of the battles of this world since I was nineteen. Twenty one years! How could I make statues when our people were slaughtered and enslaved at Hysiae!”
“Twenty one years of Kakochartos! Of exulting in bad things, of war, dissent, and destruction. You have lusted for bloodshed and battle, my son.” Talos wept then, fear and regret layered over his face and the features of his body.
As the old man looked upon his son, it became apparent that he was not scared for himself, for the imminent approach of death and the long ride the Ferryman had in store for him. He was afraid for the son before him, and it tore him apart as surely Cerberus’ fangs.
“When you embrace Eris agathos, you are creative, productive, an example to all mortals for the betterment of this world. I have always striven to make this world a better place, to leave behind beauty, for I have…” he hunched over, coughing blood, his hands gripping Stefanos’ arm tightly, desperately. “I have been blessed by the Gods, in my skill and toils, in my beloved Hermia, and my faithful Cleo…and in you, my son…in you…”
“Father,” Stefanos’ voice shook, and he felt the veins in his neck and head pulsating so much he thought he would explode. “I’ve not known any other life. I don’t know what else to do. The hoplon and doru are my tools, the thorax and greaves my clothing. I know I enjoy battle, and killing… It’s what I am good at. It’s who I am!”
Talos shook his head violently. “No. No!” He poked Stefanos in the chest. “Who you are is in here. A good man, with arete…kalos…aner agathos. You are all of those things. You have just wandered far from the path…but it is never too late.”
“I told you. I don’t know what else to do. What can I do for you, Father, to make you happy, to give you the peace of mind you want? Tell me what I can do?” His voice was almost a shout.
Talos did not flinch, however. Nor did he continue weeping. He gripped his son’s arm tightly.
“Embrace Eris agathos, and the agon. You have always had philoneikia, the love of competing, and philonikia, that essential love of winning.”
Stefanos stared at Talos, his racing heart slowing as his father’s eyes sought his and locked onto them.
“Enter the Olympiad, Stefanos. Win. For you, for our family, for the Gods themselves. Win and redeem yourself. Shake off Kakochartos for something greater, nobler.”
“The Olympiad? Father…” Stefanos shook his head slowly.
“Yes! And when you have won, and the olive crown has been placed upon your brow, I want you to commission the greatest epinikion bronze of yourself to stand in the Altis of the sanctuary for all time. When that happens, I will rest easy in Elysium.”
“Father…” Stefanos looked at the old man before him, haunted by memory, by the shade of his own mother, by the faces of the countless men he had slain from Syracuse to Persia. They all stared at him now, expectant, mocking, pitying and vengeful.
Then he felt the hand gripping his arm tightly, desperately – the hand that had created beauty with a hammer in its fist. He wanted to help his father, to give him peace.
Talos’ aged eyes stared expectantly at Stefanos, full of hope, but also of fear that his son would refuse his wish, the last he would ever make.
“I will go, Father…to Olympia. If the Gods grant me victory, and Nike crowns me, I’ll erect a bronze as you wish.”
“Thank you, my son. Yes…a bronze, beautiful, and god-like…” Talos released Stefanos’ hand and lay back, relief washing over him, his wrinkled lips smiling beneath his beard. His eyes looked up at Stefanos again. “I have never stopped caring for you,” he muttered, his eyes closing. “I tried finishing the bronze…of you…but my body was too weak. My son…”
Stefanos watched as his father drifted off to sleep, his mind going back to the unfinished statue in the workshop. It was up to him now, to finish his father’s dream, make it his own.
The next morning, as the cocks crowed across the city of Argos, from the hill of Larissa toward the gulf to the South, Helios’ light filtered in through every window and door, bringing with it the golden light of summer. Birdsong filled the air, the streets, and gardens. The agora came slowly to life as the first of the vendors began to sing their own song to those passing by.
In their family home, Stefanos slept in the dawn light that touched his bed. It had taken him a long time to fall asleep, but even then he had been restless, his mind churning over the task that had been set for him, the challenge he had accepted. Then he remembered his father’s face, the smile, the kind words that had finally come from his lips, and he had fallen asleep at last.
“Brother…” said a soft voice, after the second cock’s crow. “Stefanos?” Cleo’s soft voice said, her hand upon the bare muscle of his shoulder.
“What? What is it?” He opened his eyes to see her sad face staring down at him.
She had been crying, and now her eyes were red and telling.
“Father is gone…” she said, her eyes shut tight against another wave of grief.
“He can’t be yet… He was smiling last night. Are you sure?” Stefanos, no stranger to death, found himself trying not to believe it. Even after the conversation, the coughing, the blood, he still hoped that Talos lived.
“The Gods have taken him. Come…” Cleo stood up, and held out her hand to lead her brother to the room.
She had lit incense upon a small bronze tripod with lion-clawed feet, and four oil lamps burned gently, one in each corner of the room.
The siblings stood there, looking down at their father, his face pale, and peaceful.
“I can’t believe he’s gone,” Stefanos said, kneeling beside the body, feeling the stinging in his eyes. Though he was a grown man, in that moment he felt like an abandoned child, disbelieving, wishing he could undo the Gods’ work.
But that would go against his father’s final wishes. No hubris…no Kakochartos… In Stefanos’ mind then, he began to hear the roar of a crowd, feel a crown of olive, and see the gleam of bronze in the sun’s light.
“Thank you for making peace with him,” Cleo said, kneeling on the other side of the bed, where she stroked Talos’ hand. “I know it was not easy for you.”
Stefanos did not speak, just nodded. He was suddenly sad for her as well, for when he left Argos, she would be alone, just her and Hera, and the likeness of the goddess that stood in the temple and that had been crafted by the man who lay peaceful and dead before them.
They were not alone in burying their father.
The priestesses of the Heraion, as well as several well-known citizens of Argos, came forward to pay their respects in the days after Talos’ passing. Many insisted on contributing to his memorial stele in the necropolis, as well as the coffin for the inhumation. However, Stefanos would have none of it. As Talos’ son, he saw to it that a smooth larnax of olive wood was produced to hold his father’s remains, and that a tall, marble stele with a forge fire and hammer in relief upon it were made ready. All of the artisans involved did their utmost for their former colleague whose name was now etched upon the simple monument.
Three days later, Stefanos and Cleo stood, dressed in black himations at the head of a large group of Argives in the necropolis of Argos to lay their father to rest beside their mother.
Sacrifices had been made to appease the dead and honour the Gods who would carry Talos to the Afterlife. A brilliant golden drachm had been placed in Talos’ mouth to pay the Ferryman who would row him across the black river Styx.
Cleo wept in the darkness of the epeblema that covered her head and face, but Stefanos ‘ tears had dried up days before, his sadness replaced with determination and the thoughts of ponos ahead of him.
When the rites were finished, the meat of the sacrifices distributed to the gathered mourners, and the fat and bones left to the sacrificial flames for the Gods, Cleo turned to Stefanos.
Her eyes stared at him from behind her veil, and her hands gripped his tightly as she looked up.
“May the Gods guide you, Stefanos,” she paused, fighting back more tears. Then she looked up again. “Win. Win for us. Win for him!” She looked to their father’s dirt-covered coffin, then she hugged her brother tightly, as she had so many times before when he left for battle.
Stefanos held her small body close, uncaring of the stares of those all about them. They were all they had left.
When Cleo left to accept the condolences of other mourners, Stefanos turned and went over to where Kratos stood with Pandarus, beside the grave.
“I’m coming with you,” he said.